Film Review: Mercedes Sosa: The Voice of Latin America

"When I think of my country, I bleed a volcano," sang the great, often-exiled Argentinian singer Mercedes Sosa. But when you hear her voice, you are nothing but healed in this moving, vital documentary about her life and legacy.

Her singular, raw, impassioned voice-in-the-wilderness, as well as her staunch liberal political commitment to all of Latin America, made Mercedes Sosa (1935-2009), largely unknown in this country, one of the unquestionably great singers of her time. Described as the voice of a continent and the equivalent of Joan Baez for the U.S., Amalia Rodrigues for the Portuguese and Umm Kulthum for Muslim listeners, she rose from abject poverty in Tucuman, Argentina, started the politically influential Nueva Canción movement in the 1960s, and performed on the stages of the world, bringing with her an unswerving message of freedom and love. Although she was the most peaceful of warriors, various governments hounded her—not only in her homeland, but throughout dictatorial Latin America—for much of her life, but her indomitable courage and refusal to be silenced were an inspiration to millions. She simply transformed everything she sang into pure poetry with the deepest of meaning, and she continues to be a beacon to many, like Bruce Springsteen, who recently performed in Buenos Aires and sang her political anthem by León Gieco, "Solo le pido a Dios (I Only Ask of God)," which he learned from her.

Rodrigo H. Vila 's documentary Mercedes Sosa: The Voice of Latin America is a deeply loving portrait, with a leisurely pace that proves quite rewarding, as it encourages a rich immersion in the music and persona of its great subject. With the full cooperation and onscreen participation of her beloved son, Fabián Matus, Sosa comes off as a force of nature, through a voice which seems to emanate out of her as naturally as one of the birds she loved to sing about, as well her elemental instinct for survival. This latter quality stood her in good stead through all the death threats, arrests, jail time and heartbreaking years of exile which plagued her life until its last two decades.

Like many great performers, Sosa was, in reality, painfully shy, closing her eyes while she performed at first to steady her nerves. This tactic changed when she performed outside of Latin America, as she realized that she needed to look into the eyes of her audience to convey the meaning of the lyrics which, always being in Spanish, were often not immediately intelligible to many. Even more to the point was the ineffable loneliness she felt, especially after her treasured second husband/manager died, as well as a young musician close to her. Like her fellow goddesses of song, Judy Garland, Billie Holliday and Maria Callas, the more love she received from her fans, the more intensely alone she felt, knowing that they could never be shown the doubt and fear which riddled her.

Given Sosa's experience, the film is also something of a history of Latin American politics, with dictatorships dominating and then falling to make joyous way for freedoms enjoyed today. Her eventual return to Argentina was a triumphant homecoming, and Vila's film is blessed with a bounty of film and audio recordings of her, both onstage and off, mingling with intimates and fans, as well as interviews with the artist. More than any success, acclaim by the likes of Pavarotti, Sting and Shakira, or the Grammys she received in her final, halcyon days, Sosa treasured her friendship and artistic collaborations with great musicians, and many of them—Gieco, Fito Páez, René Pérez, David Byrne, ballet dancer Julio Bocca, etc.—weigh in with their own glowing reminiscences and adoration. A friend recalls one legendary night at a party in Paris when the great Astor Piazzolla played guitar while Sosa sang, a once-in-a-lifetime moment that we hear a snippet of and long to hear more of.

But the film's most moving footage is at a concert Sosa attended shortly after recovering from a severe illness late in life. She was only supposed to be an audience onlooker but is prevailed upon to sing from her seat. Her matchless voice again miraculously fills the hall and, for once at least, there truly is not a dry eye in the house.